Much of the information we encounter is ambiguous. However, we find certainty much more comfortable than ambiguity, doubt, uncertainty, complexity, confusion, indecision, or vagueness. Our urge for certainty often causes us to overlook the richness, complexity, nuance, and range of possibilities inherent in ambiguity. Learning to become comfortable with ambiguity long enough to explore its possibilities allows us to enhance our creativity, expand our understanding, reveal nuance, expand possibilities, enrich our beliefs, and improve our decision making. It can also help us escape polarization, overcome biases, reject stereotypes, and increase our creativity.
We can escape ideology by embracing ambiguity.
The objectives of this course are to help students:
- Recognize ambiguity,
- Become comfortable exploring ambiguity,
- Use ambiguity to increase understanding, expand possibilities, and improve creativity,
- Benefit from flexibility,
- Increase our tolerance, and
- Escape ideology.
Characterizing Ambiguity Edit
Ambiguity describes a body of information in which an image, sound, phrase, statement, or resolution is not uniquely defined, making several interpretations plausible. A common aspect of ambiguity is uncertainty. It is thus an attribute of any idea or statement whose meaning cannot be definitively resolved according to a rule or process with a finite number of steps.
The concept of ambiguity is generally contrasted with vagueness. In ambiguity, specific and distinct interpretations are permitted (although some may not be immediately obvious), whereas with information that is vague, it is difficult to form any interpretation at the desired level of specificity.
Several thoughtful people have expressed the wisdom of embracing ambiguity. Here are a few helpful quotations.
“To know what you know and know what you don’t know is the characteristic of one who knows.”—Confucius
Richard Feynman advised: “I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong.”
“The beginning of wisdom is found in doubting; by doubting we come to the question, and by seeking we may come upon the truth,” asserted Peter Abelard, the medieval French theologian.
Too often, people would rather fight to defend their beliefs than think clearly about them.
Related Terms Edit
Terms that are similar to ambiguity yet identify distinct concepts include: alternatives, ambivalence, blurry, chance, chaos, complexity, controversy, doubt, exploration, false dilemma, fog, fuzziness, inconsistency, instability, investigation, low resolution, noise, opinion, possibilities, pre-contemplation, risk, Signal to noise ratio, subjective, uncertainty, undecided, unexamined, unknown, and vagueness.
We encounter ambiguous information in many forms including images, sounds, language, estimations, and in predicting future events.
Labeling Observations Edit
What do you see when you observe the image on the right?
As soon as you identify this image as a duck, or as a rabbit, or even as the duck-rabbit optical illusion, you have interpreted the observation. Interpretation occurs whenever you assign an observation to a category. It happens as soon as you name the observation rather than describe it. This requires an assessment or judgement and endows the (previously objective) observation with that judgement. Labeling an observation resolves the ambiguity by choosing one interpretation from many possibilities. This has the advantage of providing certainty, and the disadvantage of dismissing information and limiting possibilities.
The label we choose frames the issue—“The names we give to plans, policies, and proposals determine what associations and images come to mind when we think about them.” Consider the different associations we have with each of the following pair of labels. We often use euphemisms to avoid difficult topics or to slant an ambiguous issue toward our preferred beliefs.
|One Label||Alternative Label|
Secretary of Defense
Secretary of War
“Recognition means closure, and that marks the end of thinking, looking, and listening.”
Seeing as describes our tendency to choose one interpretation from the several potential interpretations, for example: rabbit-duck, the Rubin vase, my wife and my mother-in-law, Necker cube, and the Schroeder stairs. You might ask, are you seeing this image as a duck or as a rabbit?
Consider the illustration to the right. In the center is some ambiguous information, such as the rabbit-duck image. Several equally accurate interpretations are possible; it might be a duck, or it might be a rabbit. An error can occur, however, when one of many possible interpretations is chosen as the one correct interpretation and is asserted as a certainty. Closure has been gained at the expense of accuracy, exploration, and possibility. This is the mechanism of ideology, and the basis for polarizing beliefs. If we can unwind this error, we can find common ground.
Arthur Miller has learned: “The only thing that I am reasonably sure of is that anybody who’s got an ideology has stopped thinking.”
We can learn to defer interpretation of ambiguous images or other stimuli to allow wonder, doubt, new alternatives, and many possibilities to be explored before committing to one (possibly incorrect) interpretation.
- Write a convincing argument that the image represents a rabbit.
- Write a convincing argument that the image represents a duck.
- Write a convincing argument that the image is inherently ambiguous and can fairly represent either a duck or a rabbit.
- Which of these arguments is correct? How do you know?
Many possibilities Edit
Consider the image on the right. What can we use it for? This wire form is commonly called a paper clip and is typically used to clip together sheets of paper. However, lateral thinkers have identified at least one hundred alternative uses for this object. Observing the object, thinking expansively and creatively about what it might be, how it can be used, or what it might do, can identify many possibilities. This unclassified reality invites many potential uses. Once the object is named, an interpretation is imposed, and the object becomes restricted.
The Map is not the Territory Edit
As soon as we label an object, use a mental model, invoke an analogy, or substitute an interpretation for some set of observations we substitute the map for the territory.
Yet we know the map is not the territory, but merely some simplified and often distorted representation of the corresponding territory. Whenever we rely on the map rather than the territory for forming beliefs, deciding, or planning actions, we risk misrepresenting the territory and embracing a distorted view of reality.
Beware of using a mental model as a substitute for reality. Relying on simplified models of the world is so natural, we can easily forget that “All models are wrong, some are useful.”
We depart from reality the moment we move from perception to conception from observation to interpretation. In his painting The Treachery of Images, René Magritte reminds us that an image of a pipe is not the pipe itself.
Both Galileo and the Pope were fascinated by observing daybreak. They noticed as the sun appeared bright in the sky each morning and disappeared each evening.
The Pope had no trouble interpreting this observation. The earth was the center of the universe and was surrounded by a celestial sphere. The sun was attached to that celestial sphere as it circled the earth.
Galileo was told that the earth was the center of the universe, but he had his doubts. Galileo was aware of a different story, told by Copernicus, that the earth circled the sun. He was curious, he adopted a scout mindset, and turned his simple telescope toward the sky to investigate. He observed craters on the moon, the phases of Venus, and the moons of Jupiter. These observations cast doubt on the geocentric model of the universe and provided support for a heliocentric model. Galileo challenged, and eventually superseded, the dominant paradigm.
The Pope allowed his investment in the geocentric story determine his interpretation of the observation. Learning could have replaced conflict if the Pope began with the observation, avoided the ideology, and considered a wide range of interpretations, before becoming attached to any single interpretation. The Pope’s allegiance to the geocentric ideology preempted the search for alternative explanations of the observation.
The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution Edit
Although the reported events of the Gulf of Tonkin incident were incomplete, distorted, incorrect, and ambiguous, that ambiguity quickly yielded to certainty as soon as the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was enacted by congress. An ambiguous naval event became an enduring certainty that was used to justify the Vietnam war for the next decade.
This is historically significance because it gave U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson authorization, without a formal declaration of war by Congress, for the use of conventional military force in Southeast Asia. Specifically, the resolution authorized the President to do whatever necessary in order to assist "any member or protocol state of the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty". This included involving armed forces.
President Johnson’s determination to continue the war preempted a more thorough investigation of the events and established a basis for escalating the war.
Rationale for the Iraq War Edit
The invasion of Iraq that began on March 19, 2003, was the first stage in the Iraq war. This invasion was justified by claims that Iraq was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction, the importance of maintaining access to oil, Iraqi links to terrorist organizations, human rights violations, combatting terrorism, bringing democracy to the Middle East, and other justifications. Most of the evidence used to support these claims were eventually found to be false. Similar to the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, the primary rationalization for the Iraq War was articulated by a joint resolution of the United States Congress known as the Iraq Resolution.
Ambiguity was quickly abandoned in favor of decisive action. The result was a protracted armed conflict from 2003 to 2011 that began with the invasion of Iraq by the United States–led coalition which overthrew the Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein. The conflict continued for much of the next decade as an insurgency emerged to oppose the coalition forces and the post-invasion Iraqi government. An estimated 151,000 to 1,033,000 Iraqis died in the first three to five years of conflict. US troops were officially withdrawn in 2011. The United States became re-involved in 2014 at the head of a new coalition; the insurgency and many dimensions of the armed conflict continue. The invasion occurred as part of the George W. Bush administration's War on Terror following the September 11 attacks despite no connection of the latter to Iraq.
President Bush’s determination to seek revenge on Saddam Hussain preempted a more thorough and unbiased investigation of events and established a basis for invading Iraq.
Seize the Narrative Edit
We see in the previous examples how an emerging ambiguity presents the opportunity for someone to seize the narrative, describe a clear path through the ambiguity, provide closure, and advance an agenda.
Stress Accelerates Closure Edit
“Urgently fixating on certainty is our defense mechanism against the unknown and unstable.” Therefore, avoid rushing to make important decisions, and avoid decision making if possible during times of stress or crisis.
The importance of embracing ambiguity is illustrated by contrasting the outcomes of the Waco Texas siege of the Branch Davidians with the Montana Freemen confrontation. Both confrontations involved protracted standoffs between fringe groups and the FBI. Negotiations in the Waco siege were rushed, and resulted in the deaths of four government agents, 82 Branch Davidians, including 25 children, two pregnant women, and David Koresh himself. The Montana Freeman confrontation, although compared to Waco, was resolved patiently without any loss of life.
As another example, the stress from learning your lab results tested positive for some harmful medical condition can cause you to rush toward premature closure, rather than considering the possibilities of a false positive or other misdiagnosis. The choosing wisely health education campaign was formed to help offset this tendency. The campaign identifies over 500 tests and procedures and encourages doctors and patients to discuss, research, and possibly get second opinions, before proceeding with them.
Trisha Torrey became an advocate of patient empowerment and patient advocacy after she was misdiagnosed with a rare form of cancer. While scrutinizing her own medical records, she found an error and avoided unnecessary and potentially damaging and dangerous chemotherapy. Embracing ambiguity and resisting premature closure saved her from the dangers of chemotherapy.
Closure is an aversion toward ambiguity. Although decisiveness is often considered an important characteristic of leadership, the examples cited here demonstrate the wisdom of deferring decisions until a thorough investigation can be completed.
Michael Shermer notes that “belief is the natural state of things. It is the de-fault option. We just believe. We believe all sorts of things. Belief is natural; disbelief, skepticism, and science are not natural.”
“Questions you cannot answer are usually far better for you than answers you cannot question.” ―Yuval Noah Harari
Work to avoid premature closure on important issues.
- Choose some hasty and consequential decision to study for this assignment. You may choose the decision from this list of decisive disasters, or from any other source.
- Describe the ambiguity at the center of the decision.
- Describe alternative interpretations of the ambiguous information available at the time.
- Describe the stressors, if any, that accelerated the decision making.
- Describe the factors that contributed to the hasty closure of this ambiguity.
- Describe the outcome and consequences of this hasty closure.
Ambiguity Activates our Bayesian Brains Edit
Bayesian approaches to brain function investigate the capacity of the nervous system to operate in situations of uncertainty in a fashion that is close to the optimal prescribed by Bayesian statistics. These credible models of our brain function describe our decision-making processes as largely Bayesian. Bayesian decision making begins with a prior probability (the probability we estimate based on our assumptions about the outcome before gaining new evidence) and then updates the likelihood based on subsequent evidence. If the Bayesian prior is allowed to become either 0 or 1, reflecting a prior certainty, then subsequent evidence becomes moot and is nullified. This is what we mean by “having a closed mind”. Our decision-making processes are only active when we need to resolve an uncertain prior assumption. This is the importance of embracing ambiguity—ambiguity keeps our decision-making process open to evaluating new evidence. Ambiguity keeps us thinking.
Beware of Boundaries Edit
The sorites paradox poses the question, if removing one grain from a heap of sand leaves it a heap, then one grain of sand is also a heap. When does a heap of sand transform into a few grains of sand that are no longer a heap? This paradox illustrates that the concept of heap is ambiguous. Also, the boundary between a heap and some smaller collection is also ambiguous.
In conventional language, logic, mathematics, and decision-making, we generally regard boundaries as discrete or definitive limits or borders, which permanently and absolutely divide one thing or locality apart from other things or localities. For such definitive limits to exist, however, they would have to be so sharp as to have no thickness. By contrast, even when viewed from afar and over short durations, natural boundaries often appear diffuse, mobile, and impermanent, defying such precise, abstract definition. Naturally occurring boundaries are inherently ambiguous. Artificial boundaries are often sharply defined. This mismatch between how boundaries occur naturally and how we chose to represent them can lead to several problems.
Racial classifications create problems because they impose sharply defined boundaries where no natural boundary exists. Racial classifications are socially constructed. While partially based on physical similarities within groups, race does not have an inherent physical or biological meaning. Therefore, race assignment is inherently ambiguous. None-the less, laws prevail that impose harsh burdens based on racial classification. These laws define sharp boundaries to separate one race from another. Simplistic resolutions of racial ambiguity are the one-drop rules that asserted that any person with even one ancestor of black ancestry ('one drop' of 'black blood') is considered black. Attempts to define Native American identity in the United States encounters similar difficulties.
Strategic Ambiguity Edit
A policy of strategic ambiguity is the practice by a government of being intentionally ambiguous on certain aspects of its foreign policy. It may be useful if the country has contrary foreign and domestic policy goals or if it wants to take advantage of risk aversion to assist a deterrence strategy. Such a policy can be very risky as it may cause misinterpretation of the intentions of a state, leading to actions that contradict that state's wishes.
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
Our world is full of ambiguity. Learn to embrace ambiguity to make better decisions and influence better outcomes.
Merchants of Doubt Edit
Merchants of doubt turn the tables on ambiguity. They seek to displace confidence by doubt and ambiguity.
The term gaslighting refers to attempts to cause someone to question their own reality. Gaslighting attempts to replace matters of fact with doubt and ambiguity.
We can learn to align doubt with ambiguity. It is often an error to replace ambiguity by an arbitrarily chosen certainty. It is also an error to replace facts that are well established by representative evidence with uncertainty.
- Choose some controversy from this list to study for this assignment:
- Describe how ambiguity has been introduced to cause doubt regarding matters of fact.
- What do you believe? Why? How do you know?
Uncertain Futures Edit
The future is inherently uncertain. Although we can predict the sunrise, position of the stars and planets, eclipses, and other astronomical events accurately far into the future, much of the future remains largely unpredictable. Future events are ambiguous.
Because the future is uncertain, outcomes that rely on a prediction of future events involve risk. Future outcomes of events, including accidents, injury, health, longevity, international relations, elections, business ventures, investments, technology developments, and other mishaps, misfortunes, serendipity, or good luck are ambiguous. It is an error to consider future events as certain. Be careful in assessing risk, understanding risk, communicating risk, and taking risks.
When we labeled the wire form a “paper clip” we dismissed the possibility of 100 diverse uses and assigned the single use of clipping paper. We fixed the function of that device. This process can be reversed. By describing things as they are rather than by a single function they perform, we are undoing an arbitrary certainty and restoring ambiguity.
We can describe things as they are rather than what they (narrowly) do to begin to overcome functional fixedness. Functional fixedness is a cognitive bias that limits a person to use an object only in the way it is traditionally used. This can be understood as a mental block against using an object in some new way that could solve a problem. This block limits the ability of an individual to use components given to them to complete a task, as they cannot move past the original purpose of those components. For example, if someone needs a paperweight, but they only have a hammer, they may not see how the hammer can be used as a paperweight. Functional fixedness is this inability to see a hammer's use as anything other than for pounding nails; the person couldn't think to use the hammer in a way other than in its conventional function.
Several techniques are useful in avoiding functional fixedness. These techniques include:
- Analogical transfer—Find analogies that help guide thinking in new directions.
- Uncommitting—When we remove the paperclip label and understand it as a wire form, we can imagine many potential uses. When text messages were uncommitted from their role in messaging, their potential for funds transfer was imagined. M-Pesa, one of the first and very successful mobile phone-based money transfer service was invented when it was recognized that texting can be used to send information, in the form of payment authorization.
- Overcoming prototypes—The ability to overlook the original intention of the use for the item unleashes possibilities. This can be done by analyzing the object and mentally breaking it down into its components. After that is completed, it is essential to explore the possible functions of those parts. In doing so, an individual may familiarize themselves with new ways to use the items that are available. Individuals are therefore thinking creatively and overcoming the prototypes that limit their ability to successfully complete the functional fixedness problem.
- Identifying generic parts—For each object, decouple its function from its form. McCaffrey shows a highly effective technique for doing so. As you break an object into its parts, ask yourself two questions. "Can I subdivide the current part further?" If yes, do so. "Does my current description imply a use?" If yes, create a more generic description involving its shape and material. For example, initially divide a candle into its parts: wick and wax. The word "wick" implies a use: burning to emit light. So, describe it more generically as a string. Since "string" implies a use, describe it more generically: interwoven fibrous strands. This suggests the wick can be used to make a wig for a hamster. Since "interwoven fibrous strands" does not imply a use, analysis of the wick is completed, and the wax can now be analyzed.
Restore ambiguity to unleash possibilities. Move away from the current certainty to the interpretation that led to that uncertainty, to the original ambiguity. Offer another interpretation to explore new possibilities.
Ideologies impose their story to provide certainty and preempt ambiguity. It is wise to defend yourself from ideologies. To escape ideology, dismiss the certainty imposed by the ideology, restore the ambiguity, imagine the possibilities, adopt a scout mindset, face facts, seek true beliefs, and seek real good.
- Study the ideology module of the course on finding common ground.
- Complete the assignment in that module.
- Escape from ideologies.
Dwelling in ambiguity Edit
- Search various claims of certainty for any underlying ambiguities that can be reasonably interrupted in other ways.
- Be comfortable saying “I don’t know.”
- Defer critical decisions until investigations are completed.
- Consider a variety of viewpoints, discover assumptions, challenge them, and identify ambiguities. Explore alternative interpretations of those ambiguities.
- Align doubt with ambiguity.
- Know when it is time to decide, when it is time to investigate, and have the wisdom to know the difference.
- Study the 1983 Soviet nuclear false alarm incident.
- Notice how Stanislav Petrov dwelled in ambiguity, deferred his decision, and investigated.
- What was the outcome? What was avoided?
- Read the essay Ambiguity breeds schisms.
- Recall some belief you hold. Recall how you came to hold that belief. Did that belief originate from some ambiguity? What alternative hypothesis or interpretations can reasonably explain the ambiguity?
- Reconsider your current belief. Would it be possible for you to allow for alternative interpretations of the original ambiguity?
- Does this change your belief, or at least allow you to consider alternative points of view?
Summary and Conclusions Edit
Much of the information we receive, and the stimuli we encounter are inherently ambiguous.
Although we are uncomfortable with ambiguity, we are comfortable with certainty.
To resolve the discomfort of ambiguity we often choose certainty, rather arbitrarily.
Two types of errors often occur:
- Resolving ambiguous information into a certainty, and
- Regarding matters of fact as if they are ambiguous.
To avoid these errors, we can learn to align doubt with ambiguity.
Because we are comfortable with certainty, it becomes part of our identity. We fear a loss when we challenge our beliefs—the certainties we have become comfortable with.
Because these certainties are often chosen arbitrarily by resolving some ambiguity, they are not on a firm foundation.
When we encounter conflict, we can examine our assumptions, our beliefs, and our worldviews. Relax the soldier mindset and allow the scout mindset to prevail. Embrace doubt, uncertainty, and ambiguity. Align our level of confidence with the degree of ambiguity. Become comfortable not knowing and continuing to explore. Seek true beliefs.
Recommended Reading Edit
Students who are interested in learning more about embracing ambiguity may wish to read these books:
- Holmes, Jamie (October 11, 2016). Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing Paperback. Crown. pp. 336. ISBN 978-0385348393.
- Burton M.D., Robert A. (Mar 17, 2009). On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not. St. Martin's Griffin. ISBN 978-0312541521.
- Duke, Annie. Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don't Have All the Facts. Portfolio. pp. 288. ISBN 978-0735216372.
- Gilovich, Thomas; Ross, Lee (December 1, 2015). The Wisest One in the Room: How You Can Benefit from Social Psychology's Most Powerful Insights. Free Press. pp. 320. ISBN 978-1451677546.
- Galef, Julia (April 13, 2021). The Scout Mindset: Why Some People See Things Clearly and Others Don't. Piatkus. ISBN 978-0349427645.
- Hawkins, Jeff (March 2, 2021). A Thousand Brains: A New Theory of Intelligence. Basic Books. pp. 288. ISBN 978-1541675810.
- Grant, Adam. Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don't Know. Viking. pp. 320. ISBN 978-1984878106.
- Lakoff, George; Johnson, Mark (April 15, 2003). Metaphors We Live By. pp. 242. ISBN 978-0226468013.
- Hecht, Jennifer Michael (September 7, 2004). Doubt: A History: The Great Doubters and Their Legacy of Innovation from Socrates and Jesus to Thomas Jefferson and Emily Dickinson. HarperOne. pp. 576. ISBN 978-0060097950.
- Hofstadter, Douglas R; Sander, Emmanuel (April 23, 2013). Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking. Basic Books. pp. 592. ISBN 978-0465018475.
- Weinberg, Gabriel (June 18, 2019). Super Thinking: The Big Book of Mental Models. Portfolio. pp. 352. ISBN 978-0525533580.
- Stone Zander, Rosamund; Zander, Benjamin (224). The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life. Penguin. pp. 224. ISBN 978-0142001103.
- Lakoff, George; Johnson, Mark (April 15, 2003). Metaphors We Live By. pp. 242. ISBN 978-0226468013.
I have not yet read the following books, but they seem interesting and relevant. They are listed here to invite further research.
- Seven types of Ambiguity
- The nature of Prejudice, Allport
- The Ambiguity Advantage: What Great Leaders are Great At
- Also, see: https://dlibrary.stanford.edu/ambiguity
- From The Loss of Wisdom, Chapter 9.
- The Wisest one in the room, by Thomas Gilovich…, Page 74
- Holmes, Jamie (October 11, 2016). Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing Paperback. Crown. pp. 336. ISBN 978-0385348393. Page 188.
- Many more ambiguous images are collected at: http://www.opticalillusionsportal.com/55-stunning-ambiguous-illusions/
- What I've Learned: Arthur Miller, Esquire, John H. Richardson, July 1, 2003
- 100 Uses for Paperclips, See: https://leoniehallatinnovationiq.wordpress.com/2012/11/21/100-uses-for-paperclips/
- Galef, Julia (April 13, 2021). The Scout Mindset: Why Some People See Things Clearly and Others Don't. Piatkus. ISBN 978-0349427645.
- Holmes, Jamie (October 11, 2016). Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing Paperback. Crown. pp. 336. ISBN 978-0385348393. Page 78.
- Why Do We Believe In Unbelievable Things?, TED Radio Hour, June 20, 2014.
- Although this quote is attributed here to Yuval Noah Harari from his book 21 lessons for the 21st century, it may be a reiteration of a quote first made by Richard Feynman.
- Having just cautioned against reliance on mental models, I do recognize the irony in introducing this model. Let’s hope it is useful.
- McCaffrey, T. (2012). "Innovation relies on the obscure: A key to overcoming the classic functional fixedness problem". Psychological Science, 23(3), 215-218.